The Message of Mark
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The Message of Mark

Donald English

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The Message of Mark

Donald English

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About This Book

At first sight the Gospel of Mark is a simple account of the ministry of Jesus with lots of stories, plenty of action, a large amount of human interest, and some very straight and searching questions, mostly from Jesus himself.Yet underlying the Gospel is the cross and the cost of discipleship, focusing the question of who Jesus was, and how people should respond to him. Donald English's exposition picks up Mark's focus on faith as a risky, total commitment to Christ, and on its mysteries - pre-eminently, why some people believe, and others do not, even to the point of opposition.

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Mark 1:1–13

1. The beginning

1. The meaning of the words and phrases (1:1)

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.

a. The beginning . . .

The Good News version ‘This is’ (‘This is the Good News’) misses an obvious link with the Genesis story ‘In the beginning’. Mark is establishing the fact that God is making a new start – new in the sense that it is a great step forward, but not new in leaving everything else behind, as will soon be evident. The first impression created by this Gospel, however, is that something has happened which deserves careful attention.

b. . . . of the good news

Now we begin to see why we should watch closely. The word ‘gospel’ (here ‘good news’) has various meanings for us. It suggests a message proclaimed (as in ‘Did he preach the gospel?’), or a book of the Bible (we are studying the Gospel according to Mark). Originally, however, it meant neither. It represented ‘good news’ in the sense of announcing some significant event which made a change in world history, like the birth of the Roman emperor Augustus.1 There is an essential historicity to the Christian message.
When the Old Testament roots of ‘the gospel’ are explored we begin to see why it is so important. In the form of a verb in Hebrew (‘to announce good news’) it means ‘the in-breaking of God’s kingly rule, the advent of his salvation, vengeance, vindication’.2 The focus is on God’s chosen people, but the implications range far wider, especially when, as at the coming of Jesus, they are under foreign rule. God’s in-breaking has world significance. Those who witness it must tell it.

c. . . . about Jesus the Messiah

Mark begins to do just that for his readers. The reason the gospel is an event of world-changing implications is that it is ‘the gospel about Jesus the Messiah’.
We now have a technical problem. Does ‘the gospel about Jesus the Messiah’ mean the gospel he preached, or the gospel of which he is the content? A glance at 1:14 clearly indicates the former, but Mark’s Gospel as a whole requires the latter. For once we can accept both meanings. The gospel is the good news Jesus preached; and he is at the heart of the good news. The messenger is also the message. This is unlike that other messenger we shall read about in a moment, John the Baptist (1:2–8), who made a clear distinction between himself and the one of whom he spoke, and who saw himself decreasing as the person at the heart of the good news increased (John 3:30).
We understand this identification of message and messenger better as we look at the names of this person who is the centre of the message.

d. Jesus

This was a common name among Jews until the second century ad, after which Jews ceased using it to avoid connection with Jesus Christ, and Christians did not use it commonly, out of respect for their Lord. The name means ‘Yahweh is salvation’, and Matthew draws particular attention to that (Matt. 1:21): ‘You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’

e. Christ

Though we use this as a name it is primarily a title, and means ‘the anointed one’, or the Messiah. This was the one for whom the Jewish nation had waited for many years, longing for him particularly in days of oppression by others, as was their case now under the Romans. They had much to learn about what God intended by sending his anointed one, but for the moment Mark signals the link between the Saviour and the Messiah in the one who is the heart of the good news.

f. Son of God

There is some difficulty over the earliest texts here, some including ‘Son of God’ and others excluding it. One simply has to sum up the evidence on each side and make up one’s own mind. Certainly it is usually assumed that such high Christology is more likely to have been added later rather than included earlier and dropped out. On the other hand, in the processes of copying it is not difficult to imagine this phrase being unwittingly lost. There is strong attestation in its favour in the manuscripts which include it. Most of all, if, as seems likely, Mark is here providing the basis for his whole Gospel, ‘Son of God’ would occur most naturally. Just as the title ‘the Messiah’ will run through the story Mark tells (8:29; 14:61; 15:32), so also ‘Son of God’ is a major theme (1:11; 3:11; 8:38; 9:7; 12:7; 13:32; 14:36, 61; 15:39). On balance it seems better to include it as intrinsic to Mark’s intentions. He wishes us to know that the filial consciousness of Jesus in relation to God is well based in fact. He is, uniquely, Son of God. We need to know that from the outset. Most who met him during his lifetime did not recognize Jesus for who he was, but Mark wishes his readers to be clear about what the church now perceived and proclaimed about him. This contrast is in many ways the clue to the meaning of Mark’s Gospel.

g. Implications of Mark’s opening

Before Mark’s story develops we do well to reflect on what is implied by his first sentence.
i. The good news is history
‘Gospel’ as a world-changing event points to the essential historicity of the Christian good news. Those who believe it, live by it, share it and proclaim it can count on the fact that it happened. Of course the events require interpretation, as the rest of Mark’s Gospel will make clear. But there is a basic ‘givenness’ in history which is fundamental to everything else. It happened long before we existed. We don’t have to create it, imagine it, embellish it or subtract from it. Like the mountains or the landscape, the Jesus events are part of our historical terrain. We can look back and know that it is there. You may ignore or abuse historical evidence: you cannot erase it.
ii. The good news is earthy
There is an earthiness at the heart of the message also. It is about God being committed to human affairs, being found alongside us. As Dr Lamin Sanneh put it, the earliest missionaries from the West, who went to Africa and Asia and translated Christian Scriptures into the native languages, were asserting that ‘God speaks to you in your mother tongue’.3
It is in the midst of the events of human history that God has made himself real, and continues to do so.
iii. The good news is basic
Mark does not dwell on the detail of biography or events as his story unfolds. He writes nothing of Jesus’ ancestry, unlike the other Gospel writers. His interest in John the Baptist (1:2–8) will similarly be strictly limited to the part he played in the unfolding of the drama. It seems that Mark did not believe that Jesus could be ‘proved’ to be of divine origin – it had to be perceived by faith. So he does not build up steadily to awesome claims about Jesus. He simply states them baldly, clumsily, on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis. This sheds some light on, and is in turn illuminated by, the difficult verses in 4:10–12. Whatever else they mean, in their use of Isaiah 6:9–10, they certainly make clear that the real nature and meaning of God’s presence in Jesus is not obvious – to anyone. It is perceived by God’s grace through the gift of faith. The secret seems to be that only as you are willing to respond to Jesus do you perceive by faith the truth about him. Mark’s Gospel will make this process clear to us too – both positively and negatively.
iv. The good news is challenge
This means that Mark is not writing just to inform but to challenge to faith. There is an urgency about his story. ‘Immediately’ is one of his favourite joining words. The gospel is not meant to entertain. It is much too serious for that. Life and death hang on it. In Mark, Jesus’ opening words are crucial: ‘The time has come . . . The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (1:15). Mark does not only testify to this urgent challenge to believe: he exemplifies it. We do well to hear him as we read his account of the good news ‘about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God’.

2. An ancient prophecy (1:2–3)

a. It is written . . . (1:2)

This expression regularly prepares us for a quotation. Mark is emphasizing that however new and awesome the gospel events are, they have been carefully prepared for by God, and that the Old Testament is the reliable witness to that patient preparation. He does not take away the sense of newness in the gospel: neither does he ignore the antecedent plan of God. They are all of a piece.

b. . . . in Isaiah the prophet (1:2)

The quotations which follow are actually from Malachi 3:1 combined with Exodus 23:20, and from Isaiah 40:3. Some think Mark was using a tradition which wrongly attached these quotations to Isaiah. Or they think he may be employing a form of grouped quotation used by followers of John the Baptist. It is more probable that this was a collection of Old Testament quotations brought together because of their common theme, and attached for purposes of recognition to the best-known author. Whichever is the case, Mark is not too tied to the literal text of the Old Testament Scripture as we know it. From Malachi 3:1, the ‘way before me’ becomes your way, and ‘for our God’ in Isaiah 40:3 becomes for him. Even the received Scriptures, it seems, were being seen in a new light because of the coming of Jesus. The way in which he fulfilled the Scriptures caused the New Testament writers to take statements about God and apply them to Jesus, as may have been happening here.4
Most important of all, Mark wishes us to know that John the Baptist, whom he is introducing through these verses, is part of God’s preparation for the emergence of Jesus as the anointed one. After centuries of waiting, that hoped-for day is drawing near.

c. The need for patience

Reading the passage today we rush on to the main story, since we know that a moving moment for John the Baptist and for Jesus is about to be described. In our hurry, however, we may miss the significance of the long wait for the coming of the Messiah, and so ignore a vital spiritual quality – patience. The Bible in general does not make that mistake. The psalmist often underlines the need to be patient (Pss 37:7; 40:1; 43:5). Peter says that the prophets gave their messages but were unable to enter into the fulfilment of them because ‘they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven’ (1 Pet. 1:12). All the blessings of the gospel have come to Peter’s readers. Spare a thought for the prophets who obediently spoke out but never saw the fulfilment of what they prophesied!
Patience in Christians is part of our response to the sovereignty of God. Only he knows the time, place and circumstance for things to happen in our lives. Often, because we know some of the context, we imagine we know it all. How often the moment must have seemed right to the prophet! But God knew better. The best answer to some of our prayers is ‘wait’, and sometimes ‘no’, not because God does not love us, but because the time and circumstance are not right just now. In a ‘go-getting’ instant culture we do well to cultivate the Christian quality of patience, over against the constant pressure for success, results and fulfilment.5

3. Enter John the Baptist (1:4–5)

John the Baptist’s ministry is now described, with minimal attention to biographical detail. Manuscripts vary as to the number and order of words at the beginning of verse 4, but the most likely translation would seem to be ‘John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the wilderness’, not least because it fits Mark’s style of abrupt introduction of characters and events, highlighting the excitement and the unexpected nature of all that is taking place. God has planned it and is bringing it all to pass: men and women are taken by surprise.

a. In the wilderness (1:4)

As Stuart Blanch has pointed out,6 the area referred to had a significant geographical location. It was a boundary between East and West, which the Romans would watch with particular care. It also had historical importance. Lot chose the Plain of Jordan when given the opportunity (Gen. 13). Jacob crossed the Jordan on his way to meet Esau (Gen. 32). Joshua led the people of Israel across the Jordan into the Promised Land (Josh. 3). The ministries of the prophets Elijah and Elisha had focused on the Jordan. In preaching and baptizing here, John was calling up many sacred memories. The wilderness had spiritual meaning, too. The people had wandered there for forty years, sustained by God’s goodness. There was some idea that the Messiah would appear in the wilderness. Where better to preach and baptize than in the place where current political tensions, past sacred memories and cherished future hopes met?

b. Preaching . . . (1:4)

The word might be translated ‘heralding’. In the Greek city-state the herald (1) preceded the king drawing attention to his coming; (2) called the citizens to the assembly which determined the city’s life; and (3) told athletes at the games what the rules for participation were. To describe preachers as heralds is therefore an imaginative thing t...

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Citation styles for The Message of Mark
APA 6 Citation
English, D. (2020). The Message of Mark ([edition unavailable]). IVP. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
English, Donald. (2020) 2020. The Message of Mark. [Edition unavailable]. IVP.
Harvard Citation
English, D. (2020) The Message of Mark. [edition unavailable]. IVP. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
English, Donald. The Message of Mark. [edition unavailable]. IVP, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.